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       Corralled, p.33

         Part #1 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Another fucked- up situation Lainie didn’t want to discuss, but Tanna could be a real bulldog. “The truth? I’ve fallen in love with Hank Lawson. Completely. Totally. I want to wake up with him every morning and have his babies— that kind of love.”

  “Really? Hank?”

  “Why is that such a surprise?”

  “If you’d asked me early on, I would’ve guessed Kyle was the front- runner in the ‘win Lainie’s heart’ contest.”

  Lainie turned her head and looked at Tanna lying on the other bed. “Why?”

  “Now, don’t get pissed off, but Kyle had the advantage because he’s a bull rider. Like your father was.”

  Lainie scowled. “That has no bearing on it.”

  “Plus, Kyle had bedroom tricks up his sleeve that Hank didn’t.”

  “At first, but trust me when I say Hank more than made up for lost time and opportunities.”

  Tanna bounced up and snatched the bottle from Lainie. “You cannot toss that out there and then pull that silent crap. Spill.”

  “You know when you have those defining moments in your life? And everything that seemed so murky suddenly becomes crystal clear? I had one of those.”

  “When Hank was injured?”

  “Ironically, no. Before that.”

  “Does Hank know how you feel about him?”

  “I think so.”

  Tanna studied her curiously. “While you were in the bathroom did you call Hank?”

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because I’m fine. I don’t want him to worry. His big tryout with the EBS was this weekend in Tulsa, and there’s nothing he can do about it from there.”

  “Maybe you ought to allow Hank the chance to comfort you like you comforted him when he was hurting.”

  That statement jarred her.

  “Think about it. You’d be pissed if it were the other way around and he kept something like this from you.”

  True. Quiet seconds ticked into minutes. The booze took effect, filling Lainie’s body with a mellow heat. She blinked sleepily.

  Resting her eyes for a bit was a good idea.

  An annoying buzz started by her head. Then it finally stopped.

  Tanna shook her shoulder. “Lainie? Wake up. Hank wants to talk to you.”

  She peeled her eyelids open. “Hank is here?”

  “No. He’s on your cell.”

  Lainie squinted at her. “Why were you answering my phone?”

  “Because it buzzed like four times, so I figured whoever was calling needed to talk to you.”

  “Did you tell him?”

  Tanna gave her that what- the- fuck- do- you- think look.

  “Give me the goddamned thing.” Lainie held the phone away from her ear in anticipation of Hank yelling at her. “Hey.”

  “Baby, are you okay?”

  “I’ve been better. How’d your night go?”

  “Don’t you pull this subject- changing bullshit on me. Jesus Christ. I cannot believe you were attacked. Why didn’t you call me right away? Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to stay fucking calm?”

  “Which is why I didn’t call you. I knew you’d be upset.”

  “Upset?” he barked. “I’m beyond upset. When I get my hands on that cocksucker I’m gonna break him in two. Then feed him to the hogs.”

  “I’m fine.”

  “I’m not. I won’t be fine until I lay eyes on you, Lainie, so fair warning— I’m on my way to River Bend right now.”

  Butterflies took wing in her stomach, not from the whiskey.

  “Hank—”

  “Not another fucking word. I’ll be there in roughly seven and a half hours. We’ll talk about how we’re gonna handle it then.”

  “I can’t believe you’re coming here.”

  “Lainie. Darlin’. Did you honestly think I’d stay away?” His tone was as soft and sweet and loving as she’d ever heard from him. “Baby. That ain’t the kind of man I am.”

  She teared up. “I know.”

  “Good. Rest up. I’ll be there before you know it.”

  The tight feeling in her chest that booze couldn’t loosen gave a little. She hung up.

  Tanna sat beside her. “Don’t be mad at me.”

  “I’m not. God. How could I ever be mad at you? Especially after you—” Her voice caught on a sob.

  “Maybe the whiskey wasn’t such a good idea if my tough-as-nails buddy Lainie is starting that ‘I love you, man’ crap,” Tanna said.

  Lainie laughed and sobbed simultaneously. Then exhaustion and Jack Daniel’s overtook her.

  Hank’s blood absolutely boiled. For the first time in his life, he truly understood what savage meant. The thoughts he entertained on the drive turned more bloody and violent with every mile.

  When he managed some semblance of control, he called Kyle.

  It took Kyle a while to calm down from his burst of rage. Hank waited and watched as the mile markers passed by.

  “So what’s your take on this?” Hank asked Kyle. “You’ve competed with him. Do you know him?”

  “Bottom line is, Ace Newharth is extremely cocky, with a holier- than- thou attitude and a huge following from hard- core fans who want religion with their bull riding. He’s also the favored son of several prominent sponsors, as well as in tight with the president of the EBS.”

  “Which means what, Kyle? He can’t be touched? He’s immune to the law?”

  “Yes. No. Fuck. I don’t know what good it’ll do to file charges against him, because they’ll never stick. It fucking sucks.”

  Hank counted to ten. “Our only option is to sit around with our thumbs up our asses while that fucking lowlife can get away with attempted rape?”

  “Hank. Listen to me. I hate this as much as you do. But it’ll be Lainie’s word against his.”

  “Tanna was there. She stopped it.”

  “For which I owe that girl a lifetime of thanks. But I’ve watched Ace spin things, charm his way in and out of good and bad situations. He’ll claim it was a misunderstanding. And without pissing you off and bein’ crude, if Lainie’s clothes weren’t ripped and she didn’t have the typical signs of an assault, they’ll question even what Tanna saw. Ace is slick as shit. He’s probably already conned a couple of guys into backing him up with a legitimate reason why he’d shown up in sports med.”

  “So we just give up?”

  No answer.

  “Kyle?”

  Kyle’s voice dropped and Hank strained to hear him. “When a woman makes an accusation of attempted sexual assault, the woman’s character is always brought into question, not the man’s. Especially not someone like Ace Newharth. Although we’ve been discreet, it might come out that Lainie’s been traveling with both of us. That’s bound to add more fuel to the fire.”

  Fuck. Hank hadn’t thought of that.

  “Sure, we can say she’s your girlfriend, but it’ll still cast a shadow on her character, not his. Is it fair? Fuck, no. That’s the way it is. I don’t see that there’s anything we can do for her besides just bein’ there for her.”

  “It don’t seem like enough.”

  “It ain’t.” He paused. “Look, the only other suggestion I have is to call Dusty. He knows Lainie wouldn’t cry wolf, and Dusty might put pressure on the powers that be in the EBS to bring sanctions against Ace.”

  “You know, that’s a damn smart idea. I’ll suggest it to Lainie once she and I hash this out.”

  “You’re on your way to River Bend now?” Kyle asked.

  “Yeah. She claims she’s fine. I just need to see her. To make sure she’s okay with my own eyes.”

  “That’s the best thing for her, havin’ you there. Lainie needs you. Let me know how she’s doin’.”

  “For sure.”

  “Good enough. Be safe on that blacktop tonight, my friend.”

  “I will. You too.”

  The drive ha
d been a blur after that.

  Hours later Hank knocked on the door of room 212. Just as he was thinking Tanna and Lainie were probably both asleep, the safety chain clanked against the metal door before it opened.

  Tanna held her finger to her lips and rolled a suitcase out behind her, keeping the door slightly ajar.

  “How is she?”

  “Sleeping. I encouraged her to drink a little Jack Daniel’s for medicinal reasons and let’s just say she had more than one. She’s stayed asleep since right after you talked to her.”

  “What else?”

  Her eyes searched his. Tired eyes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but don’t grill her first thing when she wakes up. I’ve already done that. If we were playing good cop/bad cop, you need to be the good cop.”

  “I can handle that. Has she changed her mind about filing charges?”

  She shook her head. “The son of a bitch needs to pay. We haven’t lost the window of opportunity, but it did close some when she didn’t take immediate action.”

  Hank relayed Kyle’s suggestion about contacting Dusty, and Tanna nodded.

  “Makes sense. It might have an effect, but I ain’t holding my breath that it’s gonna change anything.”

  He frowned. “Why’d you push her to go to the cops if you didn’t believe they’d take action?”

  “You misunderstand. I believe the cops would take action. They’d see it as attempted assault, whereas the Lariat and the EBS guys will agree with Lainie’s ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude and sweep it under the rug.”

  “Bullshit.”

  “Look, you’ve been in the world of rodeo for a long time, Hank. So have I. But being a woman in this world is completely different. I’ve lived and dealt with and cried and fought against the discrimination and chauvinism that abound in this sport. Everything from hiring all- male stock contractors, to the all- male event promoters, to the all- male prize awardment committees, to the all male sports medicine team.”

  “Lainie ain’t male. I know. I checked.”

  Tanna rolled her eyes. “Lainie is the only female working for Lariat down in the trenches on the circuits.”

  “So?”

  “So there are some people— men, specifically, men in positions of power, specifically— who don’t think she should be in what’s basically a men’s locker room.”

  “That’s asinine.”

  “The attitude is what it is. Be a tough row for her to hoe if she sticks around after making the accusation. We both know what the bastard did, but there are a lot of folks who won’t believe her.

  Who’ll believe she’s only saying it to get attention. Yeah, the whole situation sucks balls.”

  They stared at each other in miserable silence for a beat or two.

  “I fucking hate this.”

  “Me too.”

  His gaze landed on her suitcase. “You taking off right now?”

  “You guys don’t need me around.”

  “You’ve already done more than enough.” Hank cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I can ever thank you. If you hadn’t shown up there when you did, this could be a much worse situation to deal with. She could be . . .”

  Tanna squeezed his forearm. “I love her too, Hank. Your racing here to be with her is more than payment enough. Tell her to call me later. The room is paid for through tonight.”

  Hank hugged her. “Thank you, Tanna. Safe travels.”

  His heart was pounding something fierce when he entered the room. He imagined the worst. But Lainie looked the same as ever.

  Except for the small thumb- shaped bruise on the side of her throat.

  Still, she looked absolutely beautiful to him.

  He didn’t touch her, though he longed to smooth her wild curls. He longed to wrap her tightly in his arms and never let her go. He longed to pepper her sweet face with kisses. Feel her breath drifting across his chest.

  Instead he pulled out the desk chair and watched her sleep.

  Chapter XXIII

  Hank had about half dozed off when he heard the covers rustling. His eyes flew open and he caught her staring at him.

  “Hank?”

  He stood. “Lainie. Are you—”

  She jumped out of bed and launched herself into his arms before he’d taken a single step.

  “Oh, God. You’re really here.”

  Everything that felt wild in him settled. Surrounded by her scent, her body pressed against his, he held her, finally believing she was safe.

  She spoke first. “Where’s Tanna?”

  “She hit the road. You’re supposed to call her later.”

  Lainie placed sweet, tender, nuzzling kisses up his throat that made him sigh in pure contentment. When she reached his mouth, she kissed the corners of his smile, teasing his lips into parting, sweeping her tongue inside for a full- blown kiss.

  Her potent taste sparked the desire that always simmered between them. But Hank was content to let her lead. To let her show him how much she could handle.

  She touched him thoroughly. Running her hands through his hair. Over his face. Across his shoulders. Down his chest. “I missed you.”

  “I missed you too, darlin’.”

  “Will you crawl under the covers with me? I’m tired and I can’t seem to get warm.”

  “That I can do.”

  He stripped to his boxers and spooned her. Tucking the covers around her so only her face was exposed, he rested his chin on the top of her head and closed his eyes.

  Hank actually relaxed enough to drift off. But when Lainie stirred and he knew she was awake, he said, “I need to know what happened last night.”

  Her body stiffened immediately. “Didn’t Tanna relay all the sordid details?”

  “Some. But I want to hear it from you.”

  Lainie was facing away from him. At first her voice was low enough that he barely heard it. By the time she finished, her tone was clear and strong, which he took as a good sign.

  “I’m sorry. I’m pissed as hell. My anger won’t help this situation, but I have an idea about something that will help.”

  She rolled back toward him. “What?”

  “When this attack happened you were at the event as an employee of Lariat. It’s their job to provide a safe environment. When your coworkers took off, they left you alone in a dangerous situation. So in my mind, Lariat needs to be aware of what happened.

  Specifically, Dusty needs to be told. Dusty also needs to contact Bryson Westfield, from the EBS, so he’s aware of what happened at an EBS- sanctioned event.”

 
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